That one word - breathed in her ear as his strong arms held her tight - said so much. Not just that he'd missed her, which he confessed out loud moments later, but how he'd ached to hold someone like this. To have them hold him.
Wonderland had been... anything but wonderful. For a long time. Hatter's own parents had been part of the Resistance, so he'd grown up surrounded by people who would one day shape the future: Dodo being the most prominent. Part of Dodo's disgust for the young man came from his knowing Hatter's parents, and what they would have thought of what Hatter had done to survive.
Hatter had told Alice a little of this, lying together in the dark. She'd propped her head on her hand with elbow sunk into the pillow, watching his face as he stared at the ceiling, wide eyes soul-dark and curiously flat. Detached. He was still charming and charismatic during the day, enjoyed watching her teach classes at the dojo and exploring things like pizza and movies and the subway station, but without the benefit of being peaceful or happy. Emotions like that were denied the denizens of his world.
He could feel certain emotions when he touched her: when he fed off of hers or when some physical sensation stimulated them. Not pain or fear... those he could feel without help. Even relief, which was the primary sensation at their reunion. But joy? peace?...
After all, there was a reason the Queen of Hearts had built an empire trafficking these stolen emotions to the people of his world.
But things were changing. He was changing. Being in her world was slowly allowing emotions - his own emotions - to bubble and bloom inside. Barely a month since she'd run across her living room and practically leapt into his arms, he'd begun to feel more than he'd ever felt before. Maybe too much.
And though Alice didn't delude herself into thinking she was his first relationship, Hatter's powerful reactions to each new threshold of feeling thrilled her. Every time her arms closed around him she felt how he stopped himself from shuddering by holding himself stiff, every effort bent on stemming the tide. How he always leaned a little into her and couldn't quite swallow the near-silent relieved breath that escaped his lips. When they kissed he was sometimes hungry, barely restrained. Other times he was achingly slow, savoring each gentle brush of their lips.
The first time they'd made love, he shook so hard she thought he'd break apart.
It was exhausting, all these emotions and feelings running through him day after day, a sudden downpour after a lifetime of drought. It was bound to take its toll.
At first it was a sluggishness, a pervading weariness he couldn't shake for a day or so. Then it was a thirst she brought glass after glass of water to quench. Always with him blushing lightly and cracking a joke, trying not to seem too needy. Or too grateful.
"Bless you," she handed him a tissue.
"Why do you say that?" he asked, rubbing his nose with a bent knuckle as he took the white paper and crushed it with his fingers. He'd woken this morning with a tickle he couldn't seem to get rid of, a nagging drag in his throat. And that one little sneeze had brought only momentary relief.
"Um... it's just what you say."
"But why?" he pressed, blinking and knuckling his nose a little more roughly, trying both to and not to sneeze again so soon.
"Well, there's some story about it coming from the Middle Ages, during the plagues. About how they believed your soul tried to leave when you sneezed and by saying 'Bless you' it would protect it from being taken over by evil spirits."
She went back to the kitchen to make some hot tea. As soon as her back was turned he hunched a little deeper into his leather jacket, a chill having settled in his bones that wouldn't be ignored, but he refused to let her see him shiver.
"heh!!... -kNXT!-h. Ow!"
"Don't do that," she called from the stove. "You'll give yourself a sinus infection."
Hatter grunted, feeling the pressure slowly ease away from his ears. He didn't know what a 'sinus infection' was, but it didn't sound like a good thing, so he made a note not to try to pinch off the sneezes anymore, even as he felt the next one teasing him...
"Bless you," she reappeared, carrying the steaming mug. "Or would you rather I didn't say that?"
"Makes no difference," he shrugged casually, sucking a subconscious sniff and closing chilled fingers around the hot ceramic.
But it was a lie. When she said it something warm settled in his chest, something very like the feeling he got when she smiled at him, when he held her hand, when they kissed.
He liked it.
And that, really, was the root of the problem when you got right down to it. He liked all of this way too much. Even 'like' wasn't the right word, but he couldn't bring himself to even think the other. He'd had too many likable things yanked from his clutching hands in his miserable life to even allow himself to hope this would last. Was simply soaking up as much of this as he could so the memories might sustain him long enough when it, too, was inevitably gone.
Or more specifically, when she left him.
After all, how could she not? This was Alice. THE Alice of Legend. Who brought the House of Cards down not once, but twice. She may not believe she had done it 150 years ago, but he did. Some past life, a prior incarnation of her had done it first, and then returned to deliver his people again. She was a heroine in every fiber of her being. A savior down to her bones. Courageous, intelligent, compassionate, lovely. And he was...
She caught him frowning. "Is it too strong?"
The tea. Right.
"Ah, no, sorry. Just..." He quickly slipped a reassuring smirk onto his face, glancing up at her with the customary mischievous glint in his brown eyes. "Wonderin' about m'shop, 's all. Figure Ratty might've decided to take it over. Turn it into a restaurant or somethin'. Glad I don' have to eat whatever he might drag in and cook." He forced a nonchalant chuckle, setting the mug down and leaning his head back against the couch cushions. A dull throb was setting up behind his eyes, and he wondered if the caffeine in the tea would stave off the threatening headache.
"We could go back and find out," Alice murmured, slipping a warm arm behind his neck and tipping her head to lean against his. The scent of her surrounded him, like fresh spring grass and clean, wet dew.
He managed to turn away at the last moment, aiming for the crook of his arm. And scowled when the glimmer of wet drops from the spray caught the light, bright clear beads against the tan leather.
"Bless you," she murmured near his ear.
There it was again. Hatter's eyes slipped closed before he could stop himself, tucking the warm feeling away into his memories. For later.
But the tickle flared up again. "hh- 'gtsch! nkgTSCHh! He curled forward over his lap for these, pulling away from her and pressing his wrist to his nose in a vain attempt to squash them down. All it did was make the second sneeze scrape his throat harsher, echo louder through the room even as it caused the throb to become a pound. He flopped back with a weary sigh, but that turned into a light cough as the drag caught in his throat.
He shifted his eyes to look at her sideways. "What?"
"Sounds like you're getting sick." Her brows were drawn together, lips turning in a slight frown.
Dread carved a hollow pit in his stomach. "No I'm not." He swallowed. Sick was bad. Sick in Wonderland was always very bad.
"You sure?" her eyes narrowed, slim hand gliding to sweep his bangs up and rest lightly on his brow. "Mm. You don't feel warm."
"See?" he forced a wide grin, hoping she didn't catch the desperation in it. "Right as rain. Just somethin' in th' air, probably." He ducked his head and touched her lips with his, whispering, "I feel fine," in between kisses designed for distraction.
It worked. Her lips parted over his and her tongue swept his bottom lip. As usual, he had to steel himself against the onslaught of emotion: rushing warmth, staggering desire, deep gratitude tinged with unworthiness. But this time it was all the sharper, a razor edge of fear running underneath.
His lips fluttered down her neck to her collar bone, drawing breathy sighs and slight shivers from her warm throat. He struggled not to shiver himself, though not solely from desire. That damned chill was back, and the drag in his throat was edging into an urge to cough.
Later that night, after he'd made love to her and stubbornly spent a good four hours holding back a dozen sneezes and covered the clearing of his thick throat with loud noises - water in the sink or the flushing of the toilet - he lay next to her in her bed watching her sleep. He'd done this every night: pretended to drift off until her breathing became slow and deep, then turned to stare at her in the dark. She was so beautiful it made his chest ache. Her pale shoulders glowed in the thin moonlight, the smooth skin offsetting the long, dark hair that rippled down her back.
"Hh-MPxh!" he pinched the sneeze, clamping every muscle in his body so he didn't shake the bed and wake her. It sent a stab of pain through his already-aching head, but he only gripped harder, viciously denying himself breath to make the second sneeze as quiet as possible. "Mph!" Dragging his heavy limbs out of the soft sheets, away from her blissful warmth, was hard. But he'd be damned if he was going to wake her.
Pulling the bedroom door gently shut behind him, he padded silently into the living room. She'd shown him how to work the T.V., and he'd figured out how to use the closed captioning one afternoon when she fell asleep on him, head pillowed on his shoulder for a two-hour nap. Plucking a tissue from the box, he cupped it in his hand for another tight sneeze, "gk'NGSCHu!" Dammit. He wasn't going to fall sick on her. He wasn't.
Or worse, let her know it.
He curled into the couch cushions, pulling the crocheted afghan around his shoulders with a shiver he didn't have to hide. His head was still pounding, his throat coated with something vile he couldn't seem to cough up.
He sat for a few hours, sniffling, coughing and sneezing while he watched the T.V. on mute. He went through several glasses of water, the cold numbing his throat even though it did little to slake his thirst. Finally around 4 a.m. he couldn't keep his eyes open anymore and thought it would be safe to go back to bed. If he was too tired to sneeze he wouldn't wake Alice, and she wouldn't suspect a thing. So he gathered up all the used tissues, burying them in the kitchen trash under other debris, putting his dirty glass in the dishwasher.
Hatter crept into the dark bedroom, Alice's slow breathing a sweet lullaby that calmed his own. He slipped under the sheets, curling against her warm back and stubbornly suppressing another shiver. Closing his hot, aching eyes, he allowed his tired body to sink into the mattress, and he slept.